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Jan. 31, 2017 9:44 am

Nimble, networked and niche: Why nonprofits need to be all three

Columnist Tivoni Devor argues that nonprofits should stay small and stick to what they do best in this new political landscape.

Nonprofits must form their own safety nets, together.

(Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

Tivoni Devor’sGetting Good Done” column focuses on new models of enacting impact.


It’s up to us now.

In the 21st century, we have seen market disruption after market disruption, from manufacturing to media. Large institutions that we took for granted have collapsed on themselves as technology and automation have replaced institutions with apps.

But now political forces, not technology, are at the precipice of disrupting the social safety net. Direct attacks on healthcare, social security, medicare and many other federal programs are being launched by the president and Congress. This may feel like an extinction-level event right now, but remember: The meteors killed the dinosaurs, which led to mammals thriving.

Filmmaker and activist Valarie Kaur wrote after the election, “This is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb.” Like all large, top-down, monopolistic systems, elements of the social safety net can be replaced by small, nimble, networked and niche solutions.

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Crystallizing a service supply chain of small and mid-sized nonprofits all tailored to a local population’s needs can meet or exceed the outcomes of large, bureaucratic, faceless institutions. Look at the growth of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which first developed a pipeline of programs to fit the needs of a single block and now serves a whole neighborhood.

There is a myriad of small and mid-sized nonprofits that work deep in the trenches every day that you’ve never heard of because they don’t spend any money on marketing or publicity. They scratch and stretch together every dollar to put directly into service. These niche nonprofits do the one thing they do extremely well.

For example, Radnor-based Joy of Sox simply gives socks to the homeless. Parent-Child Home Program brings early literacy specialists into the homes of families with children ages 2 to 4 (and is now expanding within Philadelphia). There are many more niche programs that can fit their entire missions and programmatic activities into single tweets.

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So, how to make a difference?

Look up all the nonprofits that are in your ZIP code and donate some money. Giving $100 to a grassroots organization has exponentially more impact than giving $100 to a national one. If you end up with a bigger tax break under the new Trump tax codes, give that money straight to a local organization.

[Editor’s note:How to Give” columnist Lansie Sylvia has addressed this concept as well: Donating locally “helps you feel connected to your neighbors and your communities,” she wrote last year. “By acting locally, you demonstrate good behavior to these same people, potentially inspiring more people to get involved, thereby increasing the health of your community.”]

Large systems with fixed infrastructure, by their very nature, cannot be nimble. But as we are entering another cycle of uncertainty, the ability to be nimble is a necessity. Nimble orgs that can successfully manage pivots and break free of sunk costs will have the ability to move to into the growing cracks of the safety net — and attract associated funding.

Nimble organizations can keep up with shifting demographics and they can move at the pace of need, while relating that need to funders. In today’s news cycle and the viral nature of outrage, nonprofits that can move fast and tap into that outrage can capture the funding to get the good work done.

Networked orgs — those that focus on collaboration over competition — will also be winners in this new environment. Organizations that can work well with others can also develop supply chains of service to help people while staying in their niche and avoiding the traps of mission creep. These are the organizations that will thrive. Nonprofits should be constantly referring their clients to other nonprofits, instead of trying to capture a client base.

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As we enter this new, uncertain era, we must do it together.

A fully networked mass of nimble and niche organizations will have the ability to fill the dark void we see unfolding in front of us. Organizations should focus on their service specialties while relying on other nonprofits in a nimble net that can restructure itself to meet the ever-changing needs of the community.

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